The New Wilderness

by Diane Cook

(Harper Collins)

Authorlink interview
by Diane Slocum

Five-year-old Agnes was dying in the polluted city, so her mother, Bea, joins a group headed for the only remaining wilderness. It is an experiment led by Bea’s husband, Glen, and sanctioned by the powers that be to see if people can live a nomadic life in the wilderness without damaging it. As years go by, Agnes thrives in the wilderness and barely remembers the city. Not everyone in the party is so lucky and the group dwindles. Struggles with nature vie with struggles with personalities within the group. Agnes and Bea have conflicts of their own. And the rangers are there to be sure the rules are followed.

AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea for this story and how did you imagine it going when you first thought about it? Did you expect to start in Bea’s point of view and change to Agnes’?

“The hardest part of the writing process for me was figuring out how to tell the story…”

COOK: The first thing that came to me was the place. I thought up a last wilderness in a country where all other land was now being used to support society, either through resources or the random byproducts of living. I knew I wanted people to be living there, because there was a tension there for me to play around with. But I didn’t know why the world was the way it was, or why this last wilderness existed, or how these characters would find themselves living there as nomadic hunter gatherers. All of that came through the writing. The hardest part of the writing process for me was figuring out how to tell the story and from which character’s POV. In the early drafting, I was writing in first person and third person. I was even writing a group voice, a kind of We chorus that sometimes came to me. I was writing from Bea’s POV, but I knew I wanted to have her share the story with Agnes. It took me a couple of years to break Agnes’s voice into the book.

AUTHORLINK: Bea seems a lot different when she returns, not just because we are now seeing her through Agnes’ eyes. Was this because of her experiences while she was away?

COOK: I always imagined that what Bea saw and experienced in the City made her realize there was no going back. That their future would have to be in the Wilderness State, or maybe some other option beyond that. But the City was no longer a place she could hold out hope for. This is a striking shift for her because in the first half of the book she is very at odds with where they are, the life they are living. That she returns so determined to create space and power for herself and safety for her family hopefully cues the reader that the life they left behind is gone forever.

AUTHORLINK: How is the mothers/daughter relationship explored in your story?

“We raise children to be something other than us. To not need us anymore.”

COOK: This was the central story of the book for me. I wanted to look at the ways that mothers and daughters come together and repel one another, like magnets. I wanted to write a mother who was complicated and real and not an idealized version. I wanted them to share the story so that we could see how each of them sees the other, and how each misunderstands the other. One of the important aspects that I played with was how by saving Agnes’s life, Bea sets her up to become somewhat unknowable to Bea. Someone at ease and at one with the wilderness. Something Bea very much is not. Bea launches the very thing that will help Agnes to move beyond her mother, to become, in some ways, a stranger to her. But this is what parents do, right? We raise children to be something other than us. To not need us anymore. To hopefully do better than we did. In the wilderness, this aspect of that relationship is extreme and magnified so that we can see it more clearly.

AUTHORLINK: What research did you do to give your characters the skills they needed to survive in the wilderness?

“I read some books on wilderness survival. There are a lot of them!”

COOK: I read some books on wilderness survival. There are a lot of them! I read accounts of settlers and early explorers encountering the land for the first time. There is also a lot of information online, whether it is from a particular tribe preserving techniques to pass down, or some survivalist doomsday prepper posting YouTube videos showing how to make a deadfall trap. So, I tried to absorb as much information about experiencing and living and surviving off the land as I could. But I also always remembered that I’m writing fiction. And more, it’s fiction that takes place in a made-up future. So, I could always think or write my way out of a situation if the facts were getting me in trouble.

AUTHORLINK: Did you base your terrain on any actual places? (For instance, the Poison River sounds similar to the Tijuana River.)

COOK: I spent a lot of time in the high desert in Eastern Oregon and that empty and stark landscape was part of the inspiration for the setting of the book. I’ve also just driven across the country a lot, gone to lots of national parks and just tried to absorb the varying landscapes of this country. So as my characters were walking and encountering places, those places might have been from any of these trips or times I spent in nature. So, the places are often composites, but if you drove around, for example, Summerlake, Oregon, you’d see a lot of things that might remind you of the book.

AUTHORLINK: Is your book a warning to us for where we might be headed? How do you hope people will react, besides just getting enjoyment from your story?

“I didn’t write the book to try to say something. I wrote it to explore ideas and questions I had.”

COOK: I didn’t write the book to try to say something. I wrote it to explore ideas and questions I had. So, I want a reader to have an experience reading the book and come away with thoughts and questions. To feel a little unsettled maybe. So that the ideas linger with the reader. And because of what the story is about I think a reader could come away with a warning. But the warning is more existential. I’m not offering solutions or trying to be didactic. One thing I didn’t say specifically that I wish I had (though it is certainly implied) is that the world of the book is just our world if we never altered course, fixed our social and environmental problems, or ousted the powers that be who have brought us to this point. If anything, the warning isn’t about where we might be heading, but that we’re already well on our way.

AUTHORLINK: Did you write any novels before this that weren’t published. How did your earlier writing experiences prepare you for this?

COOK: This was my first novel attempt. I don’t have a “drawer” novel. But for much of the writing of this book I was terrified it would be my “drawer” novel. Honestly, nothing could have prepared me for the particular agony and ecstasy that novel writing was for me. You spend so long unsure whether what you’re doing is working. You write and write and write and write and you’re still nowhere near finished. It was very hard at times. And now that I’m on the other side of it, I give my friends pep talks when they are struggling. I say, “You’re having a hard time writing your novel because writing a novel is hard!” Like, it’s hard for everyone! I hope it makes them feel better. I wrote a short story collection before this and that work felt completely different to me. Stories are these handfuls while a novel seems impossible to get your arms around.

AUTHORLINK: How did your attempt to find an agent and publisher go?

COOK: I had a pretty straightforward time finding an agent and selling the book. I looked on the acknowledgment pages of books I liked and asked friends for recommendations when I was querying agents. When I found one, I ended up selling my story collection and my first novel as a 2-book package, though the novel wasn’t done and wouldn’t be done for a few more years.

AUTHORLINK: Just asking.  Do you have a grudge against rangers?

COOK: Ha – no not at all! In fact, I thought about adding a note at the back of the book to say that I love Rangers, just in case I offended any. My ideal vacation is going to a national park and going on interpretive walks. I’ve worked in national parks and for a long time I would scour the NPS website for jobs. I thought that maybe I could be a ranger someday, though I would have made a terrible ranger. However, it was just impossible not to name the enforcers of the Wilderness State Rangers. And since I was imagining a future that was not all that pleasant, I figured that the Rangers of the future might not be too benign. To me the Rangers in the book are your typical middlemen. They lack the real power in the scheme of things, but they have a power that they enjoy within the bounds of the Wilderness. And for some of them, that limited power goes to their heads.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

“I’m trying to adapt The New Wilderness into a television series.”

COOK: I’m trying to adapt The New Wilderness into a television series. When I finished the book, I really didn’t want to be done with it. There was a lot of the world I hadn’t explored yet. Hopefully, I’ll get to do that in a different form.

About the author: Diane Cook’s short story collection, Man V. Nature, was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. She has had stories in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She has been published in Harpers, Tin House and Granta. She was a producer for This American Life, a radio program. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.